There are a lot of gifted writers and fantastic storytellers out there in the world of independent literature. You can check the multitude of publishers, especially in the realm of speculative fiction, and you’ll find lots of books worth reading that can leave an impression or inspire your own ideas. But, there are those few authors that seem to really stand out; there are those writers who seem to push the envelope, stretch the boundaries, and challenge all that is conventional about fiction. Alistair Rennie is certainly one of those. Not one to be shackled by the constraints of that which is standard or expected out of a speculative fiction writer, Rennie grabs the genre by the horns and twists the bull into what his innovative imagination needs it to be.
Recently, I reviewed his singular and phenomenal novel, BleakWarrior, and I promised an interview with the mad master of the maniacal mayhem that was splattered across those pages. Now, the time has come. Here is that glimpse into the mind of the experimental genius who brought that outstanding book to us.
Q1) BleakWarrior is such a singular work of fiction. Where did it all come from? Also, where did you come up with such creative and fascinating character names?
In the first place, I wanted to create a kind of fantasy fiction that incorporated non-fantasy elements in the characters and setting, to infuse it with things that are seemingly incongruous or incompatible with fantasy.
I made a couple of rules to this effect – that there would be no magic, no gods, no overtly supernatural elements, such as we are used to seeing in second world fantasy settings. I wanted to replace those cornerstones of fantasy with a form of metaphysics that was clearly rooted in the natural, physical world.
And then there were influences I drew on from various places – Manga, Cyberpunk, 16th century revenge tragedies, Romantic Scottish poetry and fiction, and ancient texts such as Y Gododdin. .
As for the names, I can’t remember where the initial idea came from, but I liked the idea of creating characters whose names were mainly literal or figurative descriptions of who and what they were.
The process of creating the names was always interesting. Sometimes I would think of a name first and then use it as a basis for formulating a character. Other times, the character would come first and I’d have to think of a name that properly summed up what they were.
Q2) Tell us about the MetaWarriors.
Well, in the same way that the Meta-Warriors don’t know exactly who and what they are, neither do I! But, in some ways, I see them as embodiments or manifestations of particular emotional states or tendencies in nature that have given rise to them as living forms in situations of rivalry and conflict. Not in any allegorical way or anything. I think Meta-Warriors exist as literal metaphors, as it were, that are actual embodiments of what they symbolize. If you think of the sun as a symbol of the provision of life, that’s precisely what it is, but it’s also that quite literally.
Clearly, though, Meta-Warriors are also creatures of extremes and, in this respect, they are representative of the desires, needs, compulsions, obsessions and yearnings that control or motivate our behavior. And taking things to extremes is a major theme or, perhaps more accurately, a mantra of the work, which is applied in a variety of ways, on a variety of levels.
Q3) What and/or who inspired you to be an author?
This goes back a long way. When I was very young, I used to go to the library with my mother and select books to read, which I would read avidly and with great enthusiasm. My mother noticed how much I enjoyed reading, so she took me to the library often to make sure I always had a book to read.
One time, when I was probably about 7 or 8 years old, we were returning from the library when she asked me if I’d like to be a writer when I grew up. I asked her what a writer was because, at that age, I didn’t know. She explained what a writer was and, as soon as I got it, I knew instantly that this is what I wanted to do. And it’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since. I was simply captivated by the idea of actually writing books of a kind that I was reading.
I think the first authors who inspired me and gave me a sense of the direction I wished to travel in were James Herbert, Robert E Howard and Stephen King. And I was also very inspired by the folk traditions and folk tales of the north of Scotland, particularly in the area where I grew up.
Q4) You have written a lot of material for various magazines. What is probably your favorite work among them—other than BleakWarrior related writings?
That’s a tricky one. The first story I had published was one called “Il Duca di Cesena” which featured in John Klima’s now legendary “Electric Velocipede”. It’s a story that’s derived from my experience of visiting and then living in Italy, so it has a sort of personal significance that continues to resonate with me. It’s a work of historical fiction, too, which is something I’d like to do more of.
Q5) Due to your impressive education, your writing style is very intelligent and highbrow. While you were earning your various degrees in literature, what were some of the most important lessons you took away from them that helped you become the writer you are today?
First and foremost, it gave me the discipline required for writing longer pieces of work. I was able to develop the staying power and be more assertive in dealing with the doubts and hindrances that get in your way. Academia can toughen you up mentally because of what you go through and the effort required. Doing a PhD is extremely demanding, and is obviously meant to be. If you can get through that, you can get through anything in regards to the challenges and hardships of using your mind in strenuous ways. And then there’s also a lot of stuff that I learned that has become a resource for subject matter in my fiction. Developing critical skills also helps, I think, when it comes to working out the themes and plots of your stories. It allows you to analyze things inside out, to explore all angles. This has helped me to resolve the threads of stories I’m writing with more efficacy, I think.
Q6) It seems as though your experimental approach to art does not rest solely with writing. I understand you are also very involved with music. Tell us a little bit about that? What style, what projects, influences?
I’ve played in bands and been involved in music from a very young age, since I was about 12 years old. These days, I create electronic music that would be categorised as Dark Ambient. I also do some 80s inspired dark synth or horror synth, mainly for fun.
Lately, I’ve been putting together music for a new project which is called Ruptured World. I think this represents a bit of a watershed for me. The software and equipment for creating electronic music is complex and it takes years to master it enough to create music of a certain quality. I think I’m reaching that stage now, so it’s quite exciting. The release of my first Ruptured World album, called Frontiers of Disorder, is imminent.
My influences are vast. Aside from nauseating mainstream pop rubbish, I like virtually all forms of music. Chief among these, though, are the darker and more atmospheric strains. I grew up steeped in Scottish folk music, so lots of battles, murders and supernatural events. “Twa Corbies”, an old ballad about a man who overhears two crows discussing the prospect of feasting on a knight’s corpse, is the first song that made a very strong impression on me.
I was a proto-Goth, right at the forefront of the period when Bauhaus, the Birthday Party, the Virgin Prunes and the Cure first appeared. Japan and David Sylvian were also there. This blew me away and really defined me in terms of where my musical allegiances lie. I’m still a proto-Goth, though I’ve explored so much music. I like Tangerine Dream and am partial to some forms of metal. I like experimental music and am very familiar with a lot of modern jazz music. Folk music is still very important to me and is perhaps what lies at the centre of my musical experience.
Q7) I read that you are also a very experienced hill and mountain climber, so obviously you’re a risk-taker. Would you say that fearlessness is also what allows you to write such hard-edged material without flinching?
Well, to be honest, one of the things you need to do when getting up close to mountains is to eliminate the risks, to follow the rules very strictly, to never attempt to do anything unless you’re a hundred percent clear in your mind that it’s safe to do it, or that it’s something that lies well within your physical and mental limitations. The decisions you make must always be based on the principle of erring on the side of caution.
Mountains can be extremely frightening places. I frequently suffer bouts of vertigo and agoraphobia when I’m up there, so I’m pushing myself through various degrees of terror, which is actually part of the thrill of it.
So, the elimination of risk is key, the very opposite of my approach to fiction, I think.
But there’s two things about the mountains that certainly feed into my fiction. One is the emotional stimulation. The kind of emotions you feel when you visit wild places are extreme emotions – fear, awe, exhilaration, and sometimes a sort of numbing ecstasy that puts you into a subliminal state of heightened awareness – as if you’ve become an animal, where consciousness is framed outside of the normal human thought processes.
The other thing is the contact you have with nature – with wildness and more extreme gradations of physical geography, such as you can never experience it in cities or even in semi-rural environments.
Every time I return to the Highlands of Scotland or the Dolomites in Italy, I’m blown away by the beauty of those places as if I’ve only just seen them for the very first time. I think you get the same feeling when you get up close to the sea.
You forget just how formidable and crude and primeval these places are. Being there seems to hardwire your existence into the ancestral timeline that goes back eons. And these places are much more definitive of the reality of our planet than our everyday circumstances are.
And this is something I carry into my fiction. “BleakWarrior” is in a large part an embodiment of this primitive condition of raw states. That’s really one of its main themes, if not the main one.
Q8) What is the most difficult mountain you ever tackled?
My mountain experience is almost exclusive to Scotland and Italy, so…. In Scotland, the Cairngorms are the hardest mountains to tackle. They are physically huge, massive granite bulks that can’t be reached easily, so you have to walk long distances to get to them before making your ascent. And the landscape seems to magnify in size, as if you’ve stepped into another dimension, and your sense of perspective gets knocked out of joint as a result. It’s an extremely disorientating place and easy to get lost there.
So the Cairngorm plateau in Scotland is toughest there, with Ben Macdui being the highest and toughest peak to reach.
In the Dolomites, the Gruppo del Sella is tough, with massive cliffs and huge elevations that rise up in strange angles. There’s a very steep gully you need to climb between two huge buttresses that are so high they cause you’re head to spin. And up top, it’s as if you’ve arrived on the desert terrain of another planet. It’s very disorientating. It’s another huge bulk of a mountain.
The bulkier, larger masses of mountains are always tougher. There’s more terrain to cover and more obstacles to negotiate. There’s more scope for getting lost. The Cairngorms are very dangerous, and conditions can be treacherous. So great care needs to be taken, and you never go up there without knowing the weather forecast. It can change very rapidly. In the Dolomites, you’ve got to be very careful of thunder storms. I got caught in one last year, though I’d spotted it early enough to get down to lower ground. But it’s not a nice feeling. You feel as if you’re being hunted by a god whose looking to spear you with his lightning bolt.
Q9) Poetry is yet another artistic outlet that you pursue. Do you approach that with the same avant-garde fashion that you do fiction?
I suppose I do, though with much less effort and intensity than I would with fiction. In fact, I’ve only recently started writing poetry again after having abandoned it for a long time. I’m finding now that I engage poetry for two reasons – it’s an excellent way of developing and refreshing your engagement with language, of trying new things, and also for expanding your vocabulary. And secondly because it’s extremely enjoyable in the same way that creating music is.
I suspect that my poetry isn’t really poetry at all, but more a species of poetic diction – a sort of erratic form of prose that aspires to be music rather than poetry.
Q10) Lastly, I must know: Will BleakWarrior’s journey continue?
Better to ask will it ever end! I’ve actually got quite a bit of future “BleakWarrior” written already, with some new characters and further adventures. So the answer is, yes. It will continue. There’s still a few threads of the novel that need to be pursued to their fullest conclusion.
I’d like to thank Alistair Rennie for taking the time to answer these questions for Jacob Floyd’s Ghosts and Monsters. Not only is he a highly talented writer, he is also an innovative creative on multiple platforms.
To learn more about Mr. Rennie’s work, click the link below and visit his website:
Also, once more, if you have not yet purchased BleakWarrior, I recommend you do so. If you’re the kind of fan to read my blog, then I believe you would love this book!
To see what people are saying about this novel, click this link: